FIRE Files Four Free Speech Lawsuits in One Morning, Launches New Litigation Project


Today, my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has a big announcement about a major step in the decades-long war against unconstitutional speech codes at America’s public colleges and universities. Below is my statement from FIRE’s press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.:

Twenty-five years ago we had reason to think that the “temporary insanity” of campus speech codes had come to an end.

In 1989, the first of the modern generation of speech codes was defeated in federal court in a case called Doe v. Michigan. And from that decision until today, campus speech codes have consistently lost in court as clear violations of the First Amendment that are incompatible with higher education.

The codes, which famously banned everything from “inconsiderate jokes” to “inappropriately directed laughter” and limited “free speech activities” to tiny, out-of-the-way “free speech zones,” fared no better in the court of public opinion—often being skewered by those on both the political right and left.

But amazingly, all these years later, campus speech codes are still alive and thriving.

These restrictions on free expression somehow remain the rule rather than the exception even though speech codes have been successfully challenged in more than two dozen lawsuits over the years. Yet, according to our estimates, 58%—nearly three-fifths!—of public universities still maintain speech codes that are unambiguously unconstitutional.

Our organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), was founded in 1999 to defend basic rights on America’s college campuses, chief among them freedom of speech and academic freedom.

For 15 years, FIRE’s main approach has been to persuade universities through letters and press releases to uphold the free speech rights of their students and faculty. We have challenged universities to defend in public what they do to their students and faculty in private. We have had a positive impact on the free speech rights of, literally, millions of students.

But over time, it has become clear that this is just not enough. Many universities maintain their speech codes not just because they may actually believe in a mythical “right not to be offended” on campus, but because they believe that there is no “downside.” They say to themselves, “Well, maybe I can point to our speech codes if we get sued for harassment, discrimination, or personal injury…And it’s not very likely that we’ll have to go to court for violating student free speech rights, so let’s keep our speech codes.”

Universities have also relied on the fact that their financial and legal advantages are overwhelming when compared to an 18-year-old student coming onto campus (and taking on six-figure debt to do it).

In this amoral calculus, free speech loses.

FIRE has therefore decided that we need to change the incentive structure to one that favors freedom of speech on college campuses rather than the suppression of dissent.

Today, we are here to announce that we have begun a massive litigation effort with the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine, and attorneys Bob Corn-Revere, Ronald London, and Lisa Zycherman. Our goal is nothing less than ending the generation-long scandal of campus speech codes, once and for all.

We quietly began this project in the fall of 2013, with a lawsuit at Modesto Junior College in California; a college that told a student he could not hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day. Following that astonishing example, we actually found another case, at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, in which two students were again told that they could not approach students to hand out Constitutions. The Modesto Junior College lawsuit settled for $50,000. The Hilo case is ongoing.

And that was just the beginning. This very morning, we have filed suit against four more public universities that maintain flatly unconstitutional speech codes.

Those colleges are:

· Ohio University

· Iowa State University

· Chicago State University

· and Citrus College in California.

I’m proud to be joined today by Bob Corn-Revere, who will be providing more detail about these lawsuits, and you will shortly hear from some of the student plaintiffs themselves. It’s worth noting that one college we filed against today, Citrus College in California, had already agreed to abolish its absurd speech zone after a 2003 lawsuit and settlement. Universities’ stubborn refusal to relinquish their speech codes must not be tolerated.

The half-dozen lawsuits we have already filed are just the beginning. More suits are already in the pipeline, and we’re confident that after this announcement more students and faculty members will come forward to challenge speech codes in court.

We also hope that the ever-increasing army of college and university attorneys and risk managers will see this as an opportunity to do the right thing and convince their clients to dump their speech codes once and for all. But if not—well, we may see those colleges in court.

Freedom of speech, like all liberties, only survives when people like these brave students are willing to stand up for their rights—to stand up for speech.

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There are 12 comments.

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  1. Look Away Inactive
    Look Away


    • #1
  2. user_189393 Inactive

    This is exactly what we need in this atmosphere of political correctness and increasingly polarized and intolerant populace.  Good for FIRE!

    • #2
  3. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    Er….FIRE away!

    • #3
  4. user_517406 Inactive

    Needless to say, you have strong support here.  Will you please keep us updated on the progress of your cases?  And please post donation information.  I’d like to donate to the cause.

    • #4
  5. user_189393 Inactive

    Oh, and Donations to follow.

    • #5
  6. Greg Lukianoff Contributor
    Greg Lukianoff

    Thank you Merina! We sure will. Turns out its is really hard to coordinate 4 suits in the same morning! Here is our donation link:  Note that we currently have a matching grant, which supports our video project. We already produced one video about our INSANE case at Modesto Junior College:

    • #6
  7. Hodge Inactive

    Onward, FIRE! We’re lined up right behind you.

    • #7
  8. Carey J. Inactive
    Carey J.


    • #8
  9. A Beleaguered Conservative Member
    A Beleaguered Conservative

    I am wondering if it is possible for other lawyers to get involved.  Since so many complaints have already filed, there exists a model that other lawyers could use.   One would only need to find a plaintiff, then draft a complaint based on the ones that have already been filed.  How much does the litigation generally cost?  Is there much discovery involved?  Is the case generally decided on summary judgment?  Perhaps the lawyers at Davis Wright Tremaine could put out a “how to” manual.  Also, law schools could establish a clinic where students, sponsored by a professor who favored free speech, could find plaintiffs and file suit.

    • #9
  10. user_358258 Member

    A Beleaguered Conservative:

    Also, law schools could establish a clinic where students, sponsored by a professor who favored free speech, could find plaintiffs and file suit.

     Good luck with that.  Law schools are generally on the cutting edge of political correctness.

    • #10
  11. Instugator Thatcher

    I thought that the idea of being sued wasn’t the specific deterrent for these colleges, but the fear of judgement and monetary damages. So are you going to attempt to attack the ‘qualified immunity’ that college administrators enjoy and attempt to hold them personally liable as well?

    • #11
  12. Sunbelt red Inactive
    Sunbelt red

    This is great!! Just recently finished Greg’s book Unlearning Liberty and I am wholeheartedly behind this effort.

    Besides donations any other way to get involved from a volunteer perspective?

    • #12
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